Notes & Comments January 2000
Postscript to “sensation”
On Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection.
O what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practise to deceive!” It is a pity that no one introduced Arnold Lehman—as of this writing, still the director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art—to these thoughtful lines by Sir Walter Scott. They might have saved him a lot of trouble. Mr. Lehman hoped that the exhibition “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection” would be a public relations coup for the Brooklyn Museum. It had everything going for it: not only works of art that were disgusting, blasphemous, and pornographic, but also (since such objects are dime-a-dozen in the art world today) the oppositon of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The mayor’s opposition to the exhibition was a godsend. In the eyes of the so-called “arts community” and other redoubts of self-righteousness, it transformed the battle over “Sensation” into a free speech issue. For a brief and shining moment, “Sensation” was the liberal cause du jour and Arnold Lehman was its hero.
But that was before The New York Observer and The New York Times revealed the extensive and indeed tangled web that Mr. Lehman wove in order to get “Sensation” into the Brooklyn Museum. First, there was the issue of Charles Saatchi’s involvement. At the end of October, a long front-page story in the Times—based in part on an earlier story in the Observer—rang some alarm bells: “Brooklyn Museum Recruited Donors Who Stood To Gain,” ran the headline.
Far more than has been previously disclosed, the “Sensation” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art has been financed by companies and individuals with a direct commercial interest in the works of the British artists in the show, according to court documents and interviews with people involved in the exhibition.
Mr. Lehman and his assistants [the Times story continued] solicited donations of at least $10,000 from dealers who represented many of the artists whose works are on display. They offered Christie’s special access to the museum to entertain clients. They secured a pledge of $160,000 from Mr. Saatchi and then tried to conceal his financial support from the public.
It gets worse. Early in December the Times ran another long, front-page story under the headline “Art, Money and Control: Elements of an Exhibition.” Mr. Lehman has strenuously maintained that (as the Times put it) “commercial considerations had never entered his discussions with those who donated money to the exhibition,” and that the most important element of artistic control for a musuem is deciding what works of art are worthy of exhibition. How odd, then, that Mr. Lehman should have given Charles Saatchi “a central role in determining the artistic content of ‘Sensation,’ so much so that senior museum officials repeatedly expressed concerns that Mr. Saatchi had usurped control of the exhibition.”
Mr. Lehman said that he decided to try to get “Sensation” for the Brooklyn Museum after seeing the show at the Royal Academy in London and being impressed both by the art and the long lines of people waiting to see the show. Well, not quite. It turns out, as the Times reports, that “Mr. Lehman was not as informed about ‘Sensation’ as he has suggested. The documents show, and the museum now concedes, that Mr. Lehman never actually saw ‘Sensation’ in London.” “Never actually saw”?
Mr. Lehman “adamantly insisted that there was no link between his seeking sponsorship from Christie’s and his discussion of auctioning works from the museum’s collection.” But at a lunch with Mr. Lehman, Christie’s executives “‘jokingly suggested’ that Christie’s might underwrite ‘Sensation’ in exchange for handling the Brooklyn Museum’s future art sales ‘on an exclusive basis.’” As the president of Christie’s America put it in a memo: “There might be something here worth exploring.” Weeks later, Christie’s handled a sale of $21,000 worth of art for the Brooklyn Museum—a small sale, to be sure, but of sufficient interest to Christie’s that the head of Christie’s International then told Charles Saatchi in a memo that he had decided to sponsor “Sensation” since “we were given quite a lot of property from the Brooklyn Museum for sale.”
There are other embarrassing details. Last August, Mr. Lehman sought support for the exhibition from the Third Millennium Foundation. He assured the foundation that he had already secured “several gifts” of up to $350,000. Again, not quite: “As the museum now acknowledges, this statement was false.” Then there was the memo from the Brooklyn Museum’s vice director for development. He described the budget for “Sensation” as “completely artificial.” But foundations and other potential sources of support should not worry about that: Mr. Lehman explained that “totally artificial” was “the museum’s internal shorthand for ‘ballpark estimates.’”
Enough. Forget about Sir Walter Scott. Mr. Lehman clearly subscribes to the philosophy of Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” It worked for Bill Clinton. We rather doubt that Mr. Lehman will be quite so fortunate in arguing that “it all depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 5, on page 1
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